By Their Ripples Ye Shall Know Them

Spreading, circular ripples on still water may seem mysterious, but they often signal the presence of one of our area’s smaller but especially attractive birds: the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps).

Shy, with a preference for bank edges and small vegetation-covered islands that offer protective cover, the bird rarely is seen in flight. Instead, it dives: often at the slightest hint of a human presence. Its genus name, Podilymbus, is rooted in the Latin word for “feet at the buttocks.” Like many diving birds, its feet are located near its rear end: a feature which helps the bird propel itself through the water.

Despite their tendency to disappear in a flash, they sometimes will pause for a portrait despite their awareness of a human observer: cautious as ever, but undeniably cute.


Comments always are welcome.

45 thoughts on “By Their Ripples Ye Shall Know Them

    1. It’s an adult. The juveniles are browner, and have striped heads. I can’t remember ever seeing a juvenile, although they must be around. The males and females look the same, although the bills are ‘ringed’ during breeding season.

  1. I know the Wikipedia article about this genus refers to “Latin Podilymbus,” but that’s misleading. When the scientific naming system got established, Latin had long been the lingua franca in which scholars from European countries with different languages could communicate. It was normal for scholars to Latinize non-Latin words, meaning to put Latin endings on them and make the proper agreement by gender (masculine, feminine, neuter). That’s how a certain Swedish botanist became Carolus Linnaeus, and how the Chinese sage K’ung-fu-tzu became Confucius.

    All the word roots in the compound Podilymbus are Greek. The only thing Latin about it is the -us ending, which would have been -os in Greek. A way to recognize Greek elements in “Latin” words is the presence of the letter y, which the Romans used only for borrowings from Greek.

    Because Roman and Greek were related languages, they shared many words that had independently descended from their common ancestor and still had similar forms. Take the word for ‘foot.’ The root was pod- and Greek and ped- in Latin. That’s why English, which has borrowed from both languages, has Greek-based podiatrist and Latin-based pedestrian.

    1. For birds, I usually depend on the Cornell site, and that’s where I read this under the section named ‘Cool Facts’: “The Latin genus name for grebe, “podylimbus,” means “feet at the buttocks”—an apt descriptor for these birds, whose feet are indeed located near their rear ends.” I was confused enough by the change of podylimbus into Podilymbus. That’s why I chose the somewhat waffle-y “rooted in the Latin word…”
      I figured the taxonomists had changed the spelling.

      It’s interesting that regardless of spelling both words contain that ‘y’ that signals Greek elements. Live and learn!

    1. That bit of green is some of the bankside growth that these birds like to stay close to. I was on an auto route, which can make things easier. The car functions like a mobile bird blind. If I had opened the car door to get out and closer, that bird would have been gone. Of course, it’s a fun game to predict where they’ll emerge again. They can swim some distance underwater.

  2. We are looking forward to seeing these cuties as the fall migration continues. There are a few who remain in central Florida all year and breed, but in the next few weeks there will be increasing numbers on our lakes.

    Gini refers to these floating and diving bundles as “Fluffy Butts”. Who can argue with such a scientifically correct moniker?

    (Personal note. All is fine here in west-central Florida following Hurricane Ian. Lots of tree branches to clean up and we’ll need a roof inspection as some of the bigger branches fell from the 60-foot oak tree. Regular “thudding” all night long. Our thoughts continue to be with our neighbors to the southwest. Absolute devastation.)

    1. I’m glad you made it through relatively unscathed. The parallels between the damage there and what we experienced after Ike are remarkable. In the silver-lined cloud category, it is a little ironic that we’re getting days of a dry, northeast wind during Ian’s departure. One of the biggest regattas of the year is coming up, and every rigger, varnisher, diver, and sailmaker in the area is giving thanks for perfect deadline-meeting weather.

      I adore these birds, and Fluffy Butt works for me. I was lucky enough to spy one on a nest at the Brazoria refuge a few years ago: such an amazing sight.

  3. I had the same thought/question as the very first one, by Automatic Gardener, wondering if this was a juvenile, you’re right, undeniably cute. I also have another happy association for “grebe,” because the first time I worked in Milwaukee, I lived in West Allis, and near that part of town is Grebe’s Bakery, excellent doughnuts and crullers.

    1. Did Grebe’s Bakery have apple cider doughnuts, by any chance? I ran into those for the first time in Illinois, and was overcome by the deliciousness.

      I should have added a few more details about this gem of a bird. It’s just larger than a robin, or maybe about the size of a white-winged dove, and this is an adult. The juveniles are more brown, and have striped faces. Males and females look the same. I suppose I’ve seen a juvenile since the birds will breed here, but I can’t remember it. Perhaps they stay hidden away until they’re older.

    1. It’s small, but fully grown. I should have added a word about that. Just because I know how small these are, that doesn’t mean every one does. The adults are smaller than a coot, and much smaller than a duck. The young ‘uns are brown, with stripes around their faces: quite different from the grown-ups.

      I managed this photo from my car. I was on an auto route, and making use of the car as a mobile bird blind. If I’d made a single move, even just opening the door, that cute little thing would have been gone.

  4. They really are very cute birds–look at that darling face that you caught, so well! Both are lovely photos. Water is both easy and very difficult to photo graph well. Well done, Linda!

    1. I think they have some of the most expressive bird-faces I’ve seen. I’ve yet to see one on land, and I’ve only seen one in flight. The water’s their home, and it’s often worth waiting when ripples like that are spotted. There may be a bird popping back up — although some distance away. They really can make some time underwater!

  5. I kind of like their four-year-old boy are-you-going-to-tell-on-me vibe. That line from the ducks poem, “when they dines or sups, they bottom-ups” comes to mind.

    1. I didn’t realize that they breed so far north. I suppose we get some of ‘your’ birds during the winter, although we have a year-round population. We have some resident ospreys, too, but a good number of migrants come in for the winter, and just this past week I’ve heard new arrivals calling as they wheel in. Monarchs are on the move, too. It won’t be long until the white pelicans show up. We’ve had a strong north/northeast wind behind Ian, and I suspect that helped to kick things off.

    1. I’m always astonished by their quickness, and by their level of alertness. When I see ripples like those in the first photo, it’s fun to wait to see if a grebe’s going to surface a few feet away. Stalking them’s fun, too. If you move only when they’re underwater, and come to a full stop before they surface, it’s possible to get pretty close to them.

  6. You are so right, very cute birds. I saw what I thought were a parent and first-year bird at BBSP towards the end of August – I guess by your description of the juveniles, what I was seeing were two adults. Good to know! I watched as a large alligator slunk up in the water near them – one bird faced the gator and called loudly, while the other swam to put some distance between them.

    1. I didn’t know until recently what the juveniles look like. Those striped heads are so distinctive. I wonder if they might be hidden in vegetation until they’re older. Of course, timing is everything, and I may just have missed seeing the young’uns.

      Speaking of alligators, I learned something post-Ian’s landfall. I read a news article out of south Florida that kept referencing ‘crocodiles.’ I thought it was a confusion, but no: south Florida is the only place in the country where American alligators and American crocodiles both live. I learned, too, that many of the places in Florida that are covered with palm trees now were like Galveston Island ‘back in the day.’ There wasn’t a palm to be seen apart from one short and scrubby native. It really is amazing. When Ike took out all of the big oaks in Galveston, those actually were trees that were replanted after the 1900 storm.

      1. Stories of that 1900 storm in Galveston are hair-raising. That storm occurred right at the beginning of the weather prediction industry, and unfortunately prediction of the storm’s landfall was too late for the thousands that perished. Interesting about the oak trees… hope they plant more. If the Live Oaks in Rockport TX are any indication, they are survivors.

        1. This time around, they were a little smarter, and choose trees and shrubs more suited to the coastal climate. Early immigrants often planted what reminded them of home — but that old home place didn’t have hurricanes!

          If you ever want a truly gripping read, Copano Bay Press republished The Complete Story of the Galveston Horror, a collection of first-person accounts that was published at the time. One of its best features is a list in the back of all those who were known to have died: not only in Galveston, but in all the surrounding communities. Just reading through that list, with the added notes, is quite something. I think the book’s out in paperback now, and on Amazon.

  7. Grebes in general are enigmatic birds and Pied-billed Grebes are especially appealing. They breed prolifically around here, but soon will be leaving for warmer climes. I will look forward to seeing them again next spring.

    1. One of the things I learned through readers’ comments like yours is that these birds extend farther north than I ever realized. I suppose because they’re year-round residents here, and because I have found some on nests, I just never thought about it. I’m glad you get to enjoy them, too; they’re full of personality, as well as being cute.

  8. Gorgeous portrait of this one. I love watching these birds, and how they often come back up at a distance from where they dove. I’ve also found a number of them that appear almost as curious about me as I am about them.

    1. It’s fun to track them, isn’t it? And I think there might be just a touch of curiosity in this one’s gaze. It always tickles me to think of their migration. Like coots, they fly only at night, and anyone who’s seen a coot take off probably has pondered whether those night-time flights are due to embarassment over their flying abilities! Clearly they’re able, but they’re not the most graceful, and I suspect the various grebes are a little awkward out of the water, too.

    1. I took the ripple photo on a day with high, thin clouds. They cut the reflection, but there was enough blue in the sky that it produced that gorgeous blue on the water. Those little Grebes are delightful. There are other species that are larger, like the Western Grebe, but I like these. They look like something you could pick up in a state park gift shop: fuzzy, and easily squeezable if you want to make it ‘sing’ like the real bird.

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